Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Wish-fulfillment versus Tropes

Recently, I got a review for one of my books, "My Life as an Onion."

If you know me, you already know I can be snippy about the kinds of reviews I receive. That is: I can take honest criticism, but being "woke" and a writer (and therefore somewhat insightful) I often cannot help but see the unspoken subtexts going on in reviews. These subtexts are often religious, atheistic, racial, or sexist. If they weren't subtexts, if they were upfront, I probably wouldn't become snippy but when that insightful part of me detects the crappy foundational subtext upon which a review is built then ....yeah...this is when I get snippy.

In the review, the reviewer said my book was wish-fulfillment but still I kinda challenged some of the wish-fulfillment. He also said he doesn't like romances per se and likes fantasy and scifi. So, aside from reading a review where the praise is so reluctant that there is a sense that the reviewer is damning with faint praise, there is also the whole idea that somehow a book is not quite a book if it is wish-fulfillment.

So, is my book wish-fulfillment? And if it is, why am I getting so bent out of shape if a reviewer calls a spade a spade? And why am I seeing racism in everything?

Well, first of all...aren't most fiction --especially romances-- generally wish-fulfillment? It has been said that a story is the soul at war with the spirit. The author manages the battle. A story is often an exploration, and why not the exploration of a wish? It's been said, for instance, that Hamlet is a story where Horatio is a wish-fulfillment characters. He is the dear friend Shakespeare would want and he has given Hamlet such a friend a foil for all the other betrayers in Hamlet's circle. Hell, Shakespeare's plays are full of these perfect "friend" characters. No one sees it as some horrible thing.

But even more telling... White writers and readers are used to seeing their stories as the default. Therefore stories of the beautiful heroine who is beloved by every guy who sees her are normal. Especially if the heroine is what the general standard conceives as beautiful. So it is nothing to the American male, American white male , mind to take it for granted that a beautiful woman  with Euro-features is the object of lust/love of many men. The author of the romance might be not so pretty..but hell, her stand-in is. If the main character is depicted as ugly or dark-skinned, or fat, the typical American male has a problem seeing such a woman as being capable of turning heads. So I decided to write a story with just that... a slightly pudgy girl whom all the guy likes. Why? Cause I'm from Brooklyn. Cause I'm Jamaican. Cause white male tastes may not be the tastes of all the world. And maybe all white males do not want a lemon-titted girl. But also, because little Black girls should also be given stories where their beauty is seen as attractive.

The sad thing is that white male wish fulfillment is such a part of our culture that white society doesn't see it. How many times have we read about or seen movies where some old guy meets a young nubile thing who falls in love with him despite his age? Even worse, how many times have we read about or seen movies where the white guy saves the world? We are told it's a trope. But really, when we have stories where Asians or Blacks save the world, the saviors are usually white-washed because Asians and Blacks apparently can't save the world.

So yes, i'm kinda peeved. Why is my story called wish-fulfillment? But why is the male white story called a trope?
Especially when the typical standard trope often goes unchallenged in these genres. When was the last time the wrong kind of girl one the good guy in a romance? When was the last time the heroic white male didn't save the world? Yes, it happens...but in typical genre fiction, the typical genre writer does not question his wish to appear better than, happier than, stronger than.... etc.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Poem: Mother's Day

Mother's Day -- bitter sweet.

Thinking of
mothers
-- on earth or in heaven,
blessings and lost blessings.
Sick children,
children in heaven.

Once on my mother's birthday
She came to me in a dream
And asked me
Very sadly
If I knew what day it was.
I told her,
“Of course I know!”

I'm always happy
when she turns up throughout the year
in dreams
Although she symbolizes
so many things.

But last night
I dreamed of
my two miscarried children.
Quite a surprise.
 
I was carrying them around
in a little uterus/enema bag.
Almost calcified,
they were encased 
by toys, might-have-been hobbies,
my dreams.
Apparently, I haven't forgotten them.
Life and the heart are strange things.
In heaven,
no death,
no sorrow,
no loss,
no separation any more.
Although my living children are with me
I hope to meet those miscarried dreams there.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Poem: A Grudge as great as the Wall in China



 

A day will come

When you will break down walls.

 

Not your own

But the carefully constructed

Brick and mortar fortresses

Of others.

 

With practiced casualness

You will trample

The gates of enemies and friends alike

And care little that you have trespassed.

 

All will call you

The Demolisher of souls and hearts

And you will no longer regard

Or respect lingual and emotional borders.

 

Your razing of their walls

And raising of your own

Will seem innate,

born of casual causality.

 

And only a few will know

That you were born

As grass, as stubble,

And your transformation

Into a bulldozer

Was nurtured

At the feet of those whose intent was to crush you.

 

At that time,

You will speak what you feel

And all the grudges you have carried

Because you were taught to be

Silent like a sheep that is slaughtered

Will be gone.

Yes, all those grudges

Even the ones

Seen from space,

Those ones as great and winding

And full of history
As the Great Wall of China.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What Writers can learn from a Writing Contest Judge

 
I recently became a judge for a flash fiction short story competition. It was an interesting experience. Note, I do not say "fun experience" because there were moments which were decidedly not "fun." Especially when I had to (gently) critique a story or reject it entirely. So, I thought it'd be a good idea to share some of the writing advice I gave to some of the contestants.
The genres I judged were scifi, fantasy, ghost stories, and fairy tales.  


Follow the Rules
The very first advice that comes to mind is this: Follow the rules, submit your story to the appropriate genre, try to understand all the elements of a particular genre.  
One story, especially, had me quite torn. It was the best story I'd read in the entire competition, probably one of the best stories I'd read in years. But I had to disqualify it. The author had put it in the wrong category, the scifi category.  I suppose the author thought the story was scifi, but having a sprinkling of scifi catchphrases does not a science fiction story make. 

Other authors were rejected either because their stories did not have all the elements of a genre or the authors decided to go meta wink-wink nudge-nudge and parody a traditional scifi, fairy tale, or fantasy story.  It's best to create your own original fairy tale than to play with a well-known one. I cannot tell you how many "not your mother's fairytale" stories I saw. Worse, these "new" twists on traditional fairytales were not so new at all. Competition judges have read a lot; few "twists" are new to us.    

Know when to begin a story
Knowing when to begin a story is difficult. It is not necessary to start the story with guns blazing. A story that begins too close to the action might confuse the reader if it is badly-executed. So, should we start a story a second, an hour, a day, a month, a year, three hundred years before the event in the opening scene? Infodumping background and backstory at the beginning of a story is problematical. Most readers will not remember names, places, and dates, presented to them at the beginning of a story. Those captains, kings, nations you dumped on them in the opening prologue will have to be interwoven into the story again. Remember that people generally don't care about facts unless emotion is involved, and they don't care about a character's history until they've lived a few hours with the main character in the present.  Some writers use flashback scenes and others sprinkle backstory into a story, interweaving past events into the present. One warning about flashbacks: it's best not to use flashbacks too early in a story. In a novel, wait a few chapters or you will halt the forward thrust of the story. It's best not to use flashbacks in a short story unless one can get away with it. (And never assume you are so skilled that you can get away with breaking the rules.)
Know how many characters are needed
A failed story sometimes has too many characters; this just leads to confusion and a list of names the reader cannot connect to. Sometimes a story has one main character in the beginning then changes to another main character toward the end. Sometimes there is a missing character. Just as there can be a missing line in a story that pulls certain thoughts together, or a missing scene or a missing chapter, the missing character is the hardest character to "see." The writer has to step back and see if everyone present in the story is necessary, and if any essential person is absent. 
Talking heads
Narrative beats are not always necessary but long sections of dialog only punctuated by "he said" or "she said" is a lost opportunity to show aspects of the story, characterization, even subtextual metaphors.
Filtering words
Words such as "I looked," "I saw," "I glanced," "I heard," "I felt," or "I smelled" are filter words. They put a distance between the reader and the story's narrator. If one isn't careful, these words can overwhelm a manuscript, at every sentence. Instead of writing, "She saw him that morning wearing a blue-colored shirt," tweak the story to make it more active. "The blue shirt he wore" or "That morning, he wore a blue shirt." Instead of "She listened to the sounds of a bird singing in the woods," write "The caw of a raven echoed through the pine barrens." Avoid words such as "seemed," "appeared," "felt," "had the feeling," and "realized." They are often a sign that the writer is telling. Don't write "She seemed happy" or "I realized he was holding his breath" or "he looked scared." Try instead, "A smile flickered on her face" or "His shoulders relaxed and a silent sigh escaped his mouth" or "His hands shook."
Vagueness never helps
Use the perfect word. Why use "car" or "sound" when you can use Lexus or hooptie? Or splashing or gurgling? 
Lack of Voice
One of the worst problems I encountered was the lack of voice in the stories. Voice is not difficult, and yet it is one of the hardest things for new writers to master. I wil only say that "voice" reveals the narrator's heart. Sometimes it reveals more, such as the author's culture, obsessions, or preoccupations. But at its basic level, voice reveals the narrator's personality and heart.In the same way that a visual artist chooses a particular palette, medium, or subject, a writer chooses --or allows-- voice. Voice is often found in description. The way a character washes laundry can be conveyed in different way depending on the narrator's backstory, present situation, emotional state, age, rank, wealth, hopes. The description of an abandoned house depends on who is describing it. If the description of the abandoned house in your story could fit into any genre or could be done by any author, that description lacks voice. The writer doesn't have to be over-the-top, but merely himself.   
A story is not a summary
Know what a story is, how to tell it, and how to end it. A story is not a synopsis or a memo. Stories have elements of fiction, which include characterization, description, action, a story arc, a geographical or chronological setting. Many of the stories I read seemed to have characters hanging in space. The season, time of day, locations, were absent or had no effect on the character. Some stories were more like descriptions of situations; there was no beginning, no middle, no end. And some stories felt as if the author thought the twist ending would make up for the lack of plot.  
Watch the coarse language
Coarseness doesn't imply honesty, truth, passion, edginess, or anger, especially if a writer uses the coarse word repeatedly. Also, you never know if the judge is religious or easily offended. If you're going to use a coarse word, make sure it's absolutely needed.  
Be careful when attempting versimilitude
Fiction reflects life but in order to work, it can't reflect life too much. The dialog must feel real, have verisimilitude, but it must also be crafted. If two characters are arguing, don't write every word of the argument in order to show how stressed both characters are. Real-life arguments go on forever...but dialog is perfected conversation.  Have you ever seen a movie where characters are having a boring conversation? The boring conversation lasts just long enough for the viewer to understand that it is a boring conversation. Then the scene ends. The writer doesn't give us the full extent of the conversation but manages to cut away after the plot point is achieved. Consider also good dialogs, which are fictionally styled and carefully-crafted but somehow feel real, natural, and free-flowing.  
Pronoun Referrents
When using pronouns such as "it," "its," "she," "her," "this," "of them," "these," "those," "that," "there," or "which," always remember that the reader is not inside your head. Always ask yourself if the reader will understand what "it" is referring to. 
Watch for overly-long sentences 
Some of the sentences I saw in some stories were doing much too much work.  There is just so much information a sentence can hold. And some sentences work so hard they should be paid overtime. Watch, also, if you overdo it with commas, prepositions, clauses, phrases, etc. 
I hope this helps you. And happy creativity, all!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Pray Without Ceasing

 "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17 KJV)
 "Praise God continually" (Hebrews 13:15)
 
There are two ways in which we can take "pray without ceasing" and "praise God continually." Sometimes people stop praying about a certain thing. On the one hand, I know as i walk through the day I get moments when i suddenly have to pray. And on the other hand, I also feel we should never cease praying for anything or anyone. Often, the verse has been used to be a mystical commandment...always pray even when we aren't praying. Which is true. But more often than not in the Bible, "ceasing from prayer" implies never giving up praying or a particular people or thing. We must never give up on something and say that God won't ever answer that prayer.

For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; Colossians 1:9

Cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers; Ephesians 1:6

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way. 24"Only fear the LORD and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you 1 Samuel 12:23

Friday, February 24, 2017

Poem: Failed

I'm slinging more snot 
than Viola Davis in a crying scene.

And for what? For whom?
For immigrants and deportees I don't know.

This is not good.
I should not be crying;
I who have attempted to cage my heart 
All these tears should be laughable
would be laughable
If the times weren't so dangerous
if our common life hadn't gotten so surreal

I've sheltered myself round
shutdown my newsfeed
tuned my radio to the oldies
kept the TV blaring on SyFy channel
where only fake horrors
like sharks 
(with me so far from the ocean)
assail me. 

But life snipes at me
in spite of all my efforts.
Emails from self-righteous friends 
drag me into conversations
detail my supposed evil 
because I have not picketed,
have not written my senators and congressmen.

They are all very good, my friends.
Their lives are as difficult as mine.
No, no, not so difficult as mine
but difficult enough.
Still, they manage to bear the weight of the world.

Unlike me.
And they judge me for it...
my supposed coldness.

But I am weak,
I want to tell them.
I am unable to bear it.
All this oppression, all this suffering
My body cannot bear it.
No more of these emails
No more of these links 
showing governmental atrocities.

And yes, I know that soon
soon
soon
the government will come after me as well.
 We Black folks
We Christians
Cannot be far behind.

But for the moment, for the moment, for the moment
leave my heart at ease
spare it a tear.
Let me have some time, some time, some time
for my body to heal
from the harm that despair and grief has caused it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The downside of Christian "help"

Today is my younger son's birthday. He is 27 years old and has battled many illnesses in his life. I, too, have battled illnesses and other issues. One of the types of continuous battles I have endured is the battle against Christian unhelpful advice.

Valentine's Day has just passed.

What Bible verses should I use for Valentine's Day, a day dedicated to friendship, to marriage, and to love?

I thought hard and long about this and I decided on the two verses below because it is my son's birthday and because I have experienced how false or imperfect love is often shown to those with sick children. I will add a nod to Valentine's Day, though. Since we're talking about love and friendship.

Marriage is another thing that Christians judge each other about. Christians who have been divorced after a five year marriage will attempt to give counsel to people who have been married for 30 years. Christians without sick children have attempted to counsel and judge the spirituality of Christians with sick children. Christians who insist on giving other Christians marriage or spiritual advice --whether on phone calls, or through emails, or in person should remember the following two verses.

The Bible states:

Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can fully share its joy. Proverbs 14:10
 
It also states:
 
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, Phil 2:3
 
It is understandable that as a people zealous of good work, we all try to help each other. But, this need to help another by sharing our wisdom with them often rests on these foundations:
 
A) "The person to whom I am speaking does not know what I know."
B) "The person whom I am helping has never had the thought I am now having."
C) "The person to whom I am speaking has not spoken to God or heard from God and/or is not speaking to God about this problem."
D) "No one has ever told this person what I am now telling them."
E) "My desire to tell this person what is on my heart is solely from God and not from my own desire to meddle."
F) "If the person whom I am seeking to help will only do what I say, then all will be well."
 
This kind of reasoning shows that we esteem ourselves and our ideas more than we esteem others. Consider, Job's friends. They were spiritual people and most Christians nowadays are like them. They want to give an answer to another person and they believe they know. But Job's friends are better than modern Christians. Job's friends at least kept quiet for seven days.
 
Like Job, many Christians suddenly have to deal with forgiveness issues after their friends have decided to help them with advice.
 
The Christian "friend" does not realize this. Neither do they realize that their advice can be felt as disheartening  and can feel as if the "helper" is subtly bullying and hinting at them. It makes them feel unheard and preached at. Primarily, however, the "helper" has put the wounded, sick, or sad Christian in the position of feeling unlistened to. There is something so tiring about people not hearing one's heart. And the sad thing is that the Christian who is intent on "helping" her fellow Christian often never seems able to simply shut up.  This shows that it is often not God speaking but that we are dealing with a Christian who, like Job's friends, has a judgmental need to hammer her friend with her theological hammer.

Sometimes, we love others by simply acknowledging that we believe them and the words they have said about their lives.

Happy Valentine's Day, my sweet son and my kind, nonjudgmental and silent friends.

Blog Archive

Popular Posts